On October 11, 2016, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to a debt collection agency in its appeal from the Eleventh Circuit case Johnson v. Midland Funding, LLC.[1] In Johnson, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed its decision in Crawford v. LVNV Funding, LLC,[2] which held that a debt collector violates the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (the “FDCPA”) when it files a proof of claim in a bankruptcy case on a debt that it knows to be time-barred. In view of the emerging circuit split, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in order to resolve two issues: (1) whether the filing of a time-barred proof of claim in a bankruptcy proceeding exposes a debt-collection creditor to liability under the FDCPA and (2) whether the Bankruptcy Code, which governs and permits the filing of proofs of claim in bankruptcy, precludes a cause of action under the FDCPA for the filing of a time-barred proof of claim in a bankruptcy proceeding.

In Johnson, which originated in the District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, plaintiff Aleida Johnson (“Johnson”) filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition in March 2014. In May 2014, a debt collection agency—Midland Funding, LLC (“Midland”)—filed a proof of claim in Johnson’s bankruptcy proceeding for an amount of $1,879.71.[3] This debt accrued over ten years before Johnson filed for bankruptcy and its collection was time-barred by Alabama’s statute of limitations, which permits a creditor only six years to collect an overdue debt.[4] Johnson brought suit against Midland’s filing of the proof of claim under the FDCPA, which provides that “[a] debt collector may not use any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt.”[5] This prohibition encompasses an attempt to collect a debt that is not permitted by law.[6] Johnson argued that pursuant to the language of the statute, Midland’s time-barred proof of claim was “unfair, unconscionable, deceptive, and misleading in violation of the FDCPA.”[7]

Midland promptly moved to dismiss Johnson’s FDCPA suit. The District Court granted the motion to dismiss, finding that the Bankruptcy Code’s affirmative authorization for creditors to file a proof of claim—regardless of whether it is time-barred—was in direct conflict with the FDCPA’s prohibition on debt collectors filing a time-barred claim. Under the doctrine of implied repeal, the District Court found that the later-enacted Bankruptcy Code effectively repealed the conflicting provision under the FDCPA and precluded debtors from challenging that practice as a violation of the FDCPA in a bankruptcy proceeding.[8]

The Eleventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision, holding that “[t]he Bankruptcy Code does not preclude an FDCPA claim in the context of a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy when a debt collector files a proof of claim it knows to be time-barred. . . . [W]hen a particular type of creditor—a designated ‘debt collector’ under the FDCPA—files a knowingly time-barred proof of claim in a debtor’s Chapter 13 bankruptcy, that debt collector will be vulnerable to a claim under the FDCPA.”[9] Under the Eleventh Circuit’s analysis, the allegedly conflicting provisions of the Bankruptcy Code and the FDCPA could co-exist harmoniously, and the presence of a “positive repugnancy” between the statutes necessitating application of the un-favored doctrine of implied repeal was lacking.[10] Thus, although the Bankruptcy Code guarantees a creditor’s right to file a proof of claim they know to be time-barred by the statute of limitations, those creditors do not thereby gain immunity from the consequences of filing those claims.[11] The Court rejected Midland’s assertion that such an interpretation would effectively force a debt collector to “surrender[] its right to file a proof of claim.”[12] The court likened this scenario to filing a frivolous lawsuit, stating that “[i]f a debt collector chooses to file a time-barred claim, he is simply opening himself up to a potential lawsuit for an FDCPA violation. This result is comparable to a party choosing to file a frivolous lawsuit. There is nothing to stop the filing, but afterwards the filer may face sanctions.”[13] Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit found that the FDCPA lays over the top of the Bankruptcy Code’s regime, so as to provide an additional layer of protection to debtors against a particular kind of creditor—debt collectors.[14]

The Court in Johnson makes clear that its holding is limited in scope and should not have far-reaching consequences for most creditors. Most importantly, the Court acknowledges that the FDCPA’s prohibitions do not reach all creditors—the statute only applies to “debt collectors,” which are a narrow subset of the universe of creditors that might file proofs of claim in a bankruptcy proceeding.[15]  Furthermore, the FDCPA provides a safe harbor for debt collectors who unintentionally or in good-faith file a time-barred proof of claim.[16] Thus, a debt collector who files a time-barred proof of claim may escape liability by showing that the violation was not intentional and resulted from a bona-fide error.[17] These two limitations ensure that regardless of how the Supreme Court resolves this circuit split, there will not be a chilling effect on the submission of proofs of claims by the vast majority of creditors.

Although the direct impact of the Johnson ruling may be restricted to a limited creditor base, recent Supreme Court rulings involving bankruptcy cases have had broader knock-on effects on bankruptcy jurisprudence (and jurisdiction), and a decision on preemption as it relates to the Bankruptcy Code has the potential for a significant impact on various aspects of procedural and substantive bankruptcy law outside of the limited issue of the interplay of the FDCPA and the Bankruptcy Code. Accordingly, visit HHR’s Bankruptcy Report for future updates on this case and its potentially broader impact.

[1].      Johnson v. Midland Funding, LLC , 823 F.3d 1334 (11th Cir. 2016).

[2].      Crawford v. LVNV Funding, LLC, 757 F.3d 1254, 1261 (11th Cir. 2014).

[3].      Johnson, 823 F.3d  at 1336.

[4].      Id.

[5].      15 U.S.C. § 1692e (2012).

[6].      15 U.S.C. § 1692f(1) (2012).

[7].      Johnson, 823 F.3d at 1337 (internal quotation marks omitted).

[8].      Id.

[9].      Id. at 1338.

[10].    Id. at 1340.

[11].    Id. at 1338.

[12].    Id. at 1341 (alteration in original).

[13].    Id.

[14].    Id.

[15].    Id. at 1339.

[16].    Id.

[17].    Id.

In what may become a precedential analysis of the cardinal principles of Delaware corporate and bankruptcy law, the Delaware Court of Chancery recently issued a decision in Quadrant Structured Products Co., Ltd. v. Vertin, extensively discussing the rights of an insolvent company’s creditors to pursue derivative claims against the company’s directors and provided guidance to directors of distressed companies on the fiduciary duties they owe to the corporation and its stakeholders.

As a result of the financial crisis, Athilon Capital Corp, which guaranteed credit default swaps on collateralized debt obligations, suffered severe financial distress and became insolvent. A former note holder, EBF & Associates LP, subsequently acquired all of Athilon’s equity and as a result also gained control of Athilon’s board. Following this acquisition, Quadrant Structured Products Company, a creditor and note holder of Athilon, filed a derivative lawsuit in the Delaware Court of Chancery against Athilon’s directors alleging that they had breached their fiduciary duties by adopting a high risk investment strategy for the sole benefit of EBF at the expense of Athilon’s other creditors. After the filing, Athilon structured several financial transactions with EBF, which, according to the defendants, returned Athilon to balance-sheet solvency. The directors then moved for summary judgment and argued that Quadrant could only have standing to bring a derivative lawsuit if it could show that (i) Athilon was insolvent at the time the lawsuit was commenced and continuously thereafter, and (ii) Athilon was “irretrievably insolvent,” i.e., with no reasonable prospect of returning to solvency.

Noting that the question was one of first impression under Delaware law, the court rejected continuous insolvency as a requirement for creditor standing. The court explained that a continuous insolvency requirement was ill-advised because, during the course of litigation, “a troubled firm could move back and forth across the insolvency line such that a continuing insolvency requirement would cause creditor standing to arise, disappear, and reappear again.” Further, to require continuing insolvency for creditor standing would allow conflicted directors to prevent the corporation and its creditors from pursuing valid claims by restoring the corporation back to solvency and would result in a “failure of justice.” Therefore, to have standing to sue derivatively, a creditor need only establish that a corporation was insolvent at the time the creditor filed suit; whether the corporation was continuously insolvent thereafter is irrelevant.[1] The court also rejected the more onerous “irretrievable insolvency” requirement because the great weight of Delaware authority uses the traditional “balance sheet test,” which deems an entity insolvent when it has liabilities in excess of a reasonable market value of assets. The court noted that the balance sheet test was also consistent with both the test under the Bankruptcy Code for recovery of allegedly preferential or fraudulent transfers,[2] and Delaware’s statutory standard for determining whether a Delaware corporation has a cause of action against its directors for declaring an improper dividend or improperly repurchasing stock.[3]

The ruling in Quadrant Structured Products Co., Ltd. v. Vertin should be of interest for board members whose company is already, or faces the prospect of, insolvency. Although the Delaware Court of Chancery rejected the continuous insolvency and “irretrievable insolvency” requirements, the ruling does not significantly expand derivative plaintiffs’ rights—they still may not bring direct claims to enforce fiduciary duties against an insolvent corporation, do not have a “deepening insolvency” cause of action, may only gain standing to derivatively sue the board when the corporation is insolvent rather than in the “zone of insolvency” and enjoy the broad protections of the business judgment rule. Quadrant may have removed a single arrow from the quiver of a director defending against derivative suits, but the quiver still remains full.

[1]       In reaching these conclusions, Vice Chancellor Laster elaborated on the legal principles underpinning the regime for creditor-derivative litigation in light of the Delaware Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in North American Catholic Educational Programming Foundation v. Gheewalla, 930 A.2d 92 (Del. 2007), and its progeny, namely that:

  • Creditors do not gain derivative standing when a corporation operates in a “zone of insolvency.” The corporation’s “insolvency itself” is the only factor conferring standing to creditors.
  • Regardless of the corporation’s solvency or insolvency, creditors may only bring derivative claims – as opposed to direct claims – to enforce fiduciary duties.
  • The directors of an insolvent corporation do not owe any particular duties to creditors and continue to owe fiduciary duties to the corporation for the benefit of its residual claimants, which includes creditors. Therefore, the directors (a) may continue to operate the insolvent entity and refuse to transfer or distribute all of its assets to the creditors, and (b) may exercise their good faith judgment to favor non-insider creditors over other creditors of similar priority.
  • There is no theory of “deepening insolvency” in Delaware. Directors may continue to operate an insolvent entity in the good faith belief that they may achieve profitability even if their decisions ultimately lead to greater losses for creditors.

[2]       See 11 U.S.C. § 101(32)(A) (defining insolvency as a “financial condition such that the sum of such entity’s debts is greater than all of such entity’s property, at a fair valuation, exclusive of–(i) property transferred, concealed, or removed with intent to hinder, delay, or defraud such entity’s creditors; and (ii) property that may be exempted from property of the estate under section 522 of [the Bankruptcy Code].”).

[3]       See 8 Del. C. § 160(a)(1); SV Inv. P’rs, LLC v. ThoughtWorks, Inc., 7 A.3d 973, 982 (Del. Ch. 2010) (“[T]he [net assets] test operates roughly to prohibit distributions to stockholders that would render the company balance-sheet insolvent, but instead of using insolvency as the cut-off, the line is drawn at the amount of the corporation’s capital.”), aff’d, 37 A.3d 205 (Del. 2011).